Seeing Mayberry With Clear Eyes
Michael Shaffer makes a good point about how our public discourse often tiptoes around the sensitive feelings of small-town Americans, thus distorting the truth about the complexity there. Excerpt:
In fact, the reductio ad Rockwell is a common tic of journalistic visits to small towns, especially those put on the map by infamy. And it’s one that really ought to stop. Decades of culture wars have left us with a set of social rules where it is largely OK for rural types to slander their citified co-citizens (cf. Sarah Palin, small-town mayor and “Real America” stalwart) but where urbanites can’t dis the country folks without being deemed elitist (cf. Barack Obama, Chicagoite and “cling” apologizer).
Where that leaves us is with few ways of describing small-town life beyond patronizing clichés about their simplicity. But does anyone actually believe that residents of the hamlets and villages of the republic are simpler or cleaner or more honest than anyone else? Come to think of it, there’s a pretty good case for small towns being a lot more complicated than big cities.
Shaffer talks about the ongoing Maryville, Missouri, rape case, in which an alleged teenage rape victim and her family were driven out of town because one of her alleged rapists was from a prominent local family, and the whole small town coalesced around defending the boys from having their lives ruined by this supposed hussy. It’s an outrage of injustice, but it’s exactly the sort of thing you would expect in a community where everybody more or less knows everybody else. Shaffer:
Bottom line: I’d much sooner trust a place big enough to have professionals whose duties are governed by rules and regulations rather than personal ties. I know, I know: It’s that red tape that we urbanites are always pushing on our God-fearing Real-American brethren. I tend to think of the apparatus, instead, as the rules for a civilized society. But, of course, we can’t say that Maryville is a Hobbesian hellhole whose very structure and folkways enable lawlessness. That would be snobby! So instead, we are left with elegiac bunkum about simplicity interrupted.
The guy has a point. My book The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming talks about the good side and the bad side of small-town life. The epiphany I had, the thing that made it possible for me to move back, is realizing that the bullying and the rejection that helped drive me away came from the same place as did the gorgeous compassion and solidarity with my sister Ruthie as she fought cancer. You can’t have one without the other.
Anybody who expects Little Way to be a simplistic paean to small-town life is bound to be disappointed. I can see why so many people who get out of small towns find the anonymity of city life to be liberating. I’ve lived that, and it’s true. What Schaffer says about the relative difficulty of getting justice in small towns in certain conditions is true. I remind my localist friends that there was a reason the federal government had to come down hard on the Jim Crow South: because there was scant chance that a black man could get justice in towns like mine back in those days. After moving back a couple of years ago, I heard a story about how a rich white man in a town in a neighboring parish once felt disrespected by a black stranger on that town’s main street. The white man pulled out a pistol and shot the black man dead, in cold blood. Never had to answer for it in court, either. He was rich and white and nobody messed with him.
Things are vastly better today, of course, but it’s easy for me to see how something like Maryvale could happen here, or in any small town — not because small-town people are better or worse than city people, but because of the way a community works. I’ve written before about how when I got to the Louisiana public boarding school back in 1983, I was not surprised to find many kids from small towns who had been bullied or ostracized. I was quite surprised to find that students who came from big city schools had much less social anxiety. The reason was that they had been able to find a peer group within their schools. As unusual as they were compared to most, they still managed to fit in, because there were just so many kids in their community.
Since I’ve been back, and since I wrote Little Way, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the differences between my sister and me, and the way she rejected nearly everything about me as a sign of uppity citified fraudulence. It was ignorant and mean, and worked more destruction to family bonds than I could have imagined. But this was a case of my sister’s great public virtues — her devotion to her community and its way of life — being a private vice. Similarly, the relative broad-mindedness (compared to her) that I achieved by having spent most of my life living in big cities has with it a corresponding public vice of not being connected to or engaged with a broader community.
It’s so hard to find balance in this, because so many of us have so much emotional investment in either side of the issue. It’s no myth that many urban people look down ignorantly on small town and country people — but it’s no myth either that many small town and country people have a corresponding ignorant loathing for city people (see Will Wilkinson on the psychology of country music). In some way, affirming the goodness of where we live seems to require exaggerating and denigrating the faults of the Other, and exaggerating and romanticizing the good things about where we choose to live.
Anyway, nobody with a lick of sense in their head who lives in a small town can be surprised by the Maryvale horror. It’s in some ways the reverse of the legendary Kitty Genovese story, the emblematic tale of a big-city person who is a victim of violent crime, but whom nobody helps because the anonymity that characterizes urban life supposedly confers legitimacy on not caring about your neighbor.